At 5-5 in the first set against Matteo Berrettini in Rome on Tuesday, Alexander Zverev had a break point. In the middle of that point, he had a look at a short backhand. Now, it seemed, the moment had finally come for the No. 4 seed to rip his favorite shot, get the break, silence the increasingly raucous Italian crowd, and leave his lower-ranked opponent in the red dust behind him.
But instead of stepping forward and driving his backhand, Zverev let the ball drop and floated a slice down the middle of the court. It wasn’t a risky shot, but it sailed past the baseline anyway, and the break point was squandered. Zverev shot a pained look over at his father and coach, Alexander Sr.; but if he was looking for sympathy, he was looking in the wrong place. Alexander Sr. threw his arms in the air in exasperation, and then mimicked hitting a drive backhand. Message: “You should have ripped it, not bunted it.” Even Zverev’s normally undemonstrative father couldn’t take it anymore.
It has come to that for the 22-year-old, who has long been considered the heir apparent to the ATP throne. Two years ago, he beat Novak Djokovic in the final in Rome. In 2018, he made it there again, and nearly beat Rafael Nadal. So far, though, this season has been nothing like last season for the German. Today he lost in the second round to the 33rd-ranked Berrettini, 7-5, 7-5.
Rome, and the clay swing in general, were supposed to be Zverev’s firewall, the moment when he would remind us all why he was ranked No. 3 in the world. In 2018, he won titles in Munich and Madrid, and was the runner-up in Rome. This year, he has lost in the second round in Munich, the quarterfinals in Madrid, and now the second round in Rome. The firewall has burned down, and his ranking will likely fall with it.
According to Zverev, the distractions of the tennis business are to blame.
“I’m a young guy trying to build a brand,” he said on Monday. “It’s not even the difficult things. It’s just time consuming. It’s energy consuming.”
“Last year, the reason I was playing so good, all I was doing was playing tennis. Everything else was taken care for me...Now it’s more like I have to wake up, I have to think about, OK, I got this and this email. I have to respond to this and this person, I have to make a phone call, do that, then I have to practice. It’s a lot more things.”
Whatever is happening with Zverev off court, it left him searching in vain for answers on the court on Tuesday. After losing in three sets to Stefanos Tsitsipas in Madrid, Zverev said he felt as if his game was heading in the right direction, and joked that it would be “perfect” by the time he got to Paris for the French Open. But his performance against Berrettini, a player he beat in straight sets here last year, was another step back.
That’s not because the outcome was a huge surprise, or that his opponent was any kind of slouch. The 23-year-old Italian is 6'5", with a powerful serve; and while he isn’t the ball-striker Zverev is, he muscles it around the court effectively. With a title in Budapest and a runner-up finish in Munich, Berrettini has also had a breakout spring.
The problem, from Zverev’s viewpoint, wasn’t the result, but the way it came about. Zverev was content to hit and stay put well behind the baseline, while Berrettini constantly looked to run around and attack with his forehand. Zverev didn’t come to the net, didn’t try to open the court with angles, didn’t bring Berrettini forward, and didn’t attempt to change the dynamic of the rallies, even after he began losing them. Instead of capitalizing on his opportunities, he let them slip past. It was Berrettini, spurred by the crowd, who played with more emotion and aggression.
At 6'6", can Zverev succeed by playing what is essentially a grinding game from well behind the baseline? So far, he has had success with that style, especially on clay. But there have been few, if any, players of that height who have won big events by wearing their opponents down from the ground. And while Zverev strikes his two-handed backhand brilliantly, it’s a shot that’s built for steadiness, rather than for variety or forward-moving aggression. When Zverev played Tsitsipas in Madrid, it was the Greek, with his one-handed backhand, who was much freer to create and attack than the German.
Last year, all eyes were on Zverev as he traveled through the clay season and made himself a dark horse for the French Open title. Maybe it’s time to give Berrettini a look. He’s won 11 of his last 12 matches, and he’ll be playing at home all week.